A Commonplace

What is a commonplace?



Finally - the point

So this was the thing that I've been trying to get at. This was the thing that I realised after putting together the notion "legibility" and "illegibility" and my friend's maxim that "sooner or later someone has to lie."

What I realised that it isn't so much that at somepoint someone has to lie. It's rather - as was mentioned in that article on the Snafu principle yesterday - that:

there has to be a constant and systematic level of dishonesty throughout the whole process, otherwise it would never happen at all.

One of the clearest places to see this (if you actually bother to loo) is at the beginning of "traditional" projects when plans and estimates are generated. At the beginning of most IT projects, there is a massive list of unknowns. Here's just a few. + How much the project will cost + How long it will take + How valuable it will be when it's finally delivered + How it will be implemented

You might think these are bad enough - there are some even more profound uncertainties. + What the specification of the project should be + Whether the people asking for the project (let's call these the stakeholders) know what they want + Whether, even if they know what they want, the stakeholders are capable of articulating what they want + Whether the people writing down what (let's call these the analysts) are capable of capturing what the stakeholders want + Whether developers who are, you get the idea, the same for testers, all the way to the Service Delivery guys.

But also

Probably there's a useful way of categorising these into the "5Ws" - Who, When, Why, What, How - I dunno are there more than that? Seems to me that there should be. Anyway, I digress.

The point is, that if you make all of these uncertainties clear to the people who are bank rolling a project, they would never bankroll the project. So at the beginning of a project, the game of the project is to mask as much of the uncertainty as is necessary to get the project funded and moving.[1]

And here's where I want to take slight issue with my friend who claims that "sooner or later someone has to lie." This isn't exactly and precisely lying - rather it's simply making the truth at the simulataneous

And this, is what plans are for. Let me say this again.

This is what plans are for

Plans are there to simultaneously make the illegible appear legible (and therefore actionable, and crucially fundable) but also at the same time make the illegible utterly illegible - have you ever, and I mean EVER, seen a greyed out box, or a question mark on a plan? Plans are there to make the unknown and unknowable appear known and actionable.

This is what Microsoft Project is for. No wonder it's seven hundred-quid a seat. Wouldn't you fork that out for a writing package that produces magical pieces of paper and screen real-estate that pay out better than ransom notes with hardly anywhere near the violence? If I really were the bitter, cynical negative fuck that I'm sure some people are going to accuse me of being for writing this take on project management, wouldn't I be abandoning this endeavour right now and signing up for a Microsoft Project course? With maybe some Prince2 on the side? (full disclosure, I did once cynically sign up for a Prince2 course, thinking it would "look good on my CV" I lasted about 45minutes before I "had to make a phone call" and didn't come back).

OK, so this was revelation 1.

Plans are there to make the risky and unknowable look safe and knowable.

But this was the other thing that hit me. And it was a thought about sociopaths - remember them? And this was the thought.

Without sociopaths, nothing would ever get done.

Actually, this is the way that I tweeted that - and it turned out to be the most re-tweeted original thing that I'd ever written on twitter.

Without somebody at some point shrugging their shoulders and saying "fuck-it," nothing would ever get done.

And to a large degree, the people saying "fuck-it" are going to be sociopaths. I'm not saying that losers and the cluess less don't take risks that they haven't thought through. Everybody does this. In fact nobody could get through the day without doing this.

The difference between sociopaths and the rest of humanity is that they have a system for avoiding the consequences of the risks they've taken and distributing across all the losers and the clueless. In fact they have lots of systems - one of these is called "The Limited Company." An institution that has limited liability. This is in fact a brilliant idea - according to one book I read, it was invented in Venice as a way of limiting the damage that could be wreaked on a merchant if all of his ships sank [2]. This is how it worked: + The merchant borrowed money to buy goods, so he could send his ships out to sell these goods and then buy other goods, that they could sail back with, and sell. + If everything went well, the merchant made lots of money, paid of his creditors and started again + If everything went badly (i.e. all his ships sank) the merchant shrugged his shoulders, hid out in the countryside for a while and his creditors lost money.

And this is in essence how sociopaths in big organisations put together a project.
+ They put together a proposition where the the risks, the uncertainties and the illegibilities are illegible. They make it just illegilble enough to get people on board. + If it goes well, they take the credit. + If it doesn't go well, they sigh, blame the developers, the analysts, the suppliers, the market and move on to another project - having lost nothing.

This is what Venkatesh Rao, in his discussion of sociopaths calls the "Heads I win, tails I lose principle."

So this was revelation 2

Without sociopaths nothing would get done

Sociopaths are the ones that are prepared to say "fuck-it" and the reason they're prepared to say "fuck-it" is that, either consciously or unconsciously they know that whatever happens they can use the "Heads I win, tails you lose principle." to come out on top.

What's really interesting from a project management point of view is the actually mechanics of how they drive this process. As far as I can see it, there are three interconnected drivers that they use to make the process happen, and I don't have time to talk about them now, but that's OK because they deserve a post all to themselves.

  1. Attachment to competence
  2. Commitment and consistency
  3. Time pressure

[1] Weird how when you think about it like this, it sounds so much like a "Collateralized Debt Obligation" - you know those financial instruments that nearly brought about the destruction of the planet?

[2] That book is "The Grunch of Giants" by Buckminster Fuller - it reads as if it's been written by one of those crazy people who hang around hospitals and police stations with silver paper hats on their heads to stop the aliens interfering with their brain waves. But that's just because it's so much more clear-eyed and sensible that almost anything else you've ever read. Another idea that I got from reading that book is one that, now I'm thinking about the difference between Losers and Sociopaths has a lot more meaning:

You can either make money, or sense